At face value, these three countries seem to have very little in common aside from all being part of the developing world and being defined by poverty and underdevelopment. They are from two different geographical zones, with populations, which in many respects are dissimilar, and defined by different ideological orientations. So, why would I lump them together?
For several decades now, the United Nations and the women’s movement have been calling for greater female representation and gender political equality, with little progress in many parts of the world. Indeed, the Commonwealth Caribbean, outside of Arab States perhaps, takes centre place in this continued under representation despite the democratic progress that has been made in the region.
But as of 2017 in Bolivia, women make up 53.1 per cent of the representatives in parliament. In Cuba, women now make up nearly half (48.9 per cent) of the parliament and until 2018, Rwanda headed the global ranking in women’s political representation in the national parliament. Indeed, since 2008, Rwanda has topped the global list of countries with the highest number of female parliamentarians but fell to third place in 2017 with approximately 60 per cent. There are other high performers in Latin America as well, like Nicaragua which ranked at number two in the latest Global Gender Gap Report.
It would be interesting to dissect the varied reasons for these three countries being able to achieve this remarkable transformation and attempt to duplicate whatever measures at the institutional and structural levels that led to it. But, of course, transferability is not always possible, nor desirable.
Yes, Rwanda’s transformation has been achieved in the context of a marked pro woman legal environment which has led to this poor African nation achieving what few other developing countries have been able to accomplish. Rwanda now also heads the global ranking with the highest rate of female labour market participation at 86 per cent. But it is not only the labour market participation that is impressive, it is also the gender pay gap which is one of the narrowest globally with women on average earning 88 cents to every dollar earned by men. Impressive, considering that in many Western countries governments have passed enabling legislation like the Equal Opportunity and Pay legislation (there are various incarnations of this important legislation). The Commonwealth Caribbean can certainly benefit from some of the best practices used in Rwanda to achieve this transformation.
However, it is not possible to duplicate the environment which demanded that robust action be undertaken to rescue a failed State coming out of the turbulent period of the 1990s. For those who have forgotten, and those who are unaware because as they love to say, “that was before I was born” (yet are always on social media and downloading “stuff” from the internet), Rwanda, let me remind the reader, emerged out of a devastating civil war during which approximately 800,000 citizens were killed (in just over three months) by opposing sides of the politicised ethnic conflict. As men are usually caught up in the machinations of war (though women are often victims of gender based violence given the political economy of war), there was a dramatic population shift and in the aftermath of the genocide, women made up between 60-70 per cent of the population left behind when the dust finally settled, the killings ceased and the blood and stains of warfare had all but been obliterated (except from the psyche of Rwandans).
The point is that women found themselves in an unusual situation and consequently had little choice but to take up positions which had previously been occupied by men. Out of bloodshed came this remarkable transformation. The political always seem to lag behind the economic and the social but working alongside the men left behind or who had survived the bloodshed, the women were successful in pursuing gender equity enhancing measures and quotas were implemented guaranteeing women 30 per cent representation in parliament.
Of course, it’s not all roses and perfume for women in Rwanda for as the global Human Rights Watch groups point out, violence against women is shockingly high with as much as 90 per cent of the victims of physical and psychological violence being women. This is even in the face of the apparent empowering impact that women’s labour force participation and greater access to education are said to have on women and girls. I guess that patriarchy is too entrenched.
Now, institutionally and ideologically, what factors account for Cuba’s achievement? The country’s economic profile leaves much to be desired; its per capita income is one of the lowest globally. Most of us understand this. But how many of us appreciate that Cuba’s slow economic progress is rooted in the nearly 60-year trade embargo placed on the country and in the collapse of its COMECON friends who had provided tremendous assistance to Cuba in the face of the bullying tactics of the United States following the Cuban revolution of 1959 and its persistence into the twenty-first century despite what seemed like the promising thawing of the Cuban – American relationship under President Obama?
The impressive political gender gap manifested primarily in the increased participation of women in Cuba’s national legislature is no doubt largely a consequence of mandatory gender quotas. But unquestionably we need to locate this record in the political commitment of the Cuban revolution which incorporated women’s rights and investments in literacy and public health, with women gaining greater access to higher education, the elimination of any gender gap in education and health services. In the case of the latter, the United Nations has in the past noted the exceptional nature of health coverage in the country including the universal access to anti-retroviral treatment for patients with HIV/AIDS – a feat unparalleled in this hemisphere and quite possibly elsewhere.
Bolivia, for its part, has serious problems beyond economic malaise, though much has been done over the course of the last ten years to reduce poverty and improve the country’s economic profile. And it is clear that the country, like many of its Latin American sisters and brothers, is defined by a culture of machismo (male chauvinism) but it appears that more than any other, women and girls are exposed to greater harm as a direct result of their gender. And that violence is not just confined to women of lower socio-economic circumstances as it extends to a group of women that one would presume would be cocooned from that major stain on humanity. Indeed, more than 4,000 complaints of violence and harassment (a form of violence) against female politicians were recorded between 2004 and 2012 by the Bolivian Association of Council Women (ACOBOL).
Yes, the government has been endeavouring to manage the gender based violence and two pieces of legislation have been passed to that effect. These were motivated in part by the femicide of two female councillors in 2012. The legislation – Harassment and Political Violence Against Women and a Law to Guarantee Women a Life Free from Violence – are important but do not go far enough to address the Bolivian picture of gender based violence.
However, Law 243 makes a conviction for political harassment punishable by two to five years of prison and tackles issues such threats, both direct and indirect, against female candidates or politicians designed to either reduce their functions or influence their positions on a range of critical issues. In addition, the legislation also makes physical, sexual or psychological aggression punishable by imprisonment of three to eight years. Among other things, Law 348 makes femicide punishable by 30 years of prison. We may say that the punishment under Law 243 seems to be excessive but so is the extent of the problem in the country which must be managed.
But notwithstanding these and other problems, Bolivia, up to 2017, was ranked third in the world for the greatest representation of women in the national legislature, with roughly 53 per cent of the Chamber of Deputies and 47 per cent of the Senate comprising female politicians.
In all three countries, the implementation of the quota system has been critical in enhancing women’s political participation. Opponents of gender quotas dismiss them as a reliable and permanent solution to the lack of gender parity in politics. Three lines of arguments can be detected. There are those who contend that the practice is inherently discriminatory and undemocratic. A second strain of thought is that the gender gap in politics is a direct consequence of a shortage of willing and/or qualified women. In other words, women lack political ambition. In that vein, over the next 18 months, four of us at the Cave Hill Campus will be undertaking a cross national study to gauge the veracity of that contention.
However, based on a study of the impact of quota systems globally, it certainly does immediately address the historic underrepresentation of women in politics and some do claim that it has also had the corollary effect of significantly impacting policy outcomes as anticipated.
It does appear that in the initial stages it may initially lead to the nomination of underqualified candidates, (history has shown that the present system confronts society with unsuitable and unqualified men and so one can legitimately argue – and so what?). However, this must be counterbalanced by the fact that its implementation and adequate enforcement confront society with what many of us already know, and that is that women are successful as both candidates and representatives. We know, for example, that even in countries like Brazil, where quota legislation has been executed inconsistently, women have achieved significant legislative victories such as improved length of maternity and paternity leaves and equal pay.
Whatever else we can legitimately say about countries like Cuba, Bolivia, Rwanda and even Guyana in the Commonwealth Caribbean, for the rest of us in the developing world, their rich legacy (not the only achievement for sure in relation to Cuba) is that they had a leadership with the political will, fortitude and foresight ably crafting, as much as possible, a gender parity political landscape, even while acknowledging that women in these societies have not yet been able to crack the hardest highest glass ceiling, that of chief executive.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)